Northern Arapaho mourn 3 teens, loss of cultural ties

By Ben Neary
Wind River Reservation, Wyoming (AP) 8-08

Margaret Washington holds a portrait of her granddaughter, Ohetica
Win Elyxis Gardner, 13.

AP Photo by Ben Neary

Rows of rundown houses sit among stunted trees on a bleak, wind-swept plateau. The nearest mountains are a faint smudge on the horizon, and a boarded-up house marks the end of the road.

Three teenage girls died here, at the Beaver Creek housing complex, in early June. All three were members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.

U.S. federal authorities have not said what killed them, although tribal leaders say the deaths highlight the scourge of drugs and alcohol on the reservation. And the leaders say the deaths show the price the tribe continues to pay for the slow evaporation of its culture, native language and traditional ways.

“At this point, it seems that we’re losing it,” said Harvey Spoonhunter, co-chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, the tribe’s governing body. “I think the youth, from 12 to 18, are kind of lost. They don’t know their place in the tribe.”

Ohetica Win Elyxis Gardner, 13, Winter Rose Thomas, 14, and Alexandrea “Alex” Whiteplume, 15, were all found dead on the morning of June 4. Authorities have declined to release details on the circumstances surrounding their death.

Autopsies have been performed. The FBI says the investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, young people on the Wind River Reservation say drugs and alcohol are prevalent. And they say children need more supervision.

Whitney SunRhodes, 16, addressed a community meeting two weeks after the girls were found dead.

“What happened to the girls over at Beaver Creek, sad to say, it woke everybody up, right? It’s sad to say that it took their deaths to bring our tribe together as one,” said SunRhodes, who knew one of the girls.

The tribe’s youth need more help, she said.

“We need more parental supervision. We need more guidance. We need more activities out there that will keep kids involved,” SunRhodes said.

Margaret Washington, Elyxis’ grandmother, would agree. She said Elyxis and other children at the housing complex were frequently out on the streets at night, unsupervised. She said people from outside the community commonly cruise through the complex.

“We need a recreation area around here, where kids can play basketball,” Washington said. “Kids drop out of school, and don’t finish their education.”

Loreal Bell, Elyxis’ mother, said she has been trying to make a better life for her family. She enlisted in the Army in July 2007 and is stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. She said her superiors have delayed her deployment to Iraq so she can grieve for her daughter.

Bell, 31, said Elyxis had a difficult time adjusting to life on the reservation after living off of it for some time.

“I think my daughter tried a little too hard to try to fit in, she was an impressionable age,” Bell said. “That seems to be like a normal thing on the reservation, like drugs and alcohol. And she was exposed to it more, and I don’t know that she knew how to handle it.”

Northern Arapaho leaders say children on the reservation commonly fall through the cracks. They say that drugs and alcohol combine with a tattered social fabric leave many young people without support.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, American Indians and Alaska natives had the highest rate of any racial group, at 9.9 percent. The rate among whites was 7.2 percent.

Denied a reservation of their own, the Northern Arapaho were herded onto the reservation they now share with the Eastern Shoshone. In the 20th century, many Northern Arapaho youth were forced to attend government boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language. The federal government, for a time, even banned the celebration of the tribe’s Sun Dance, its main religious ceremony.

Although there are programs in the schools to teach the Northern Arapaho language to children, experts say the youngest people fluent in the Northern Arapaho language are about 60 years old.

“Lives are filled with despair,” said Sergio A. Maldonado, Sr., director of tribal education for the Northern Arapaho. He said he sees his tribe still working through the effects of its historical grief. And rather than assimilating into mainstream America, he said he sees many tribal members suffering from, “a complete identity loss. A social dysfunction.”

While Maldonado said some Northern Arapaho families are flourishing and their children succeeding, he said far too many are not. He estimated the dropout rate on the reservation at 40 percent.

Richard Brannan serves as CEO of the Wind River Service Unit, which manages two health clinics serving more than 10,000 people, both Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, on the reservation.

Brannan said the center has a contract with each tribe to provide substance abuse treatment. “But it’s so underfunded it’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “We have a long waiting list of people waiting to go to treatment.”

Brannan said the average age of death on the Wind River Indian Reservation is 49 years old. “So we basically have the same life expectancy as somebody in Africa,” he said.